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Flipping the Linux switch: Penguin on a (USB) stick

Ever wish you had your whole desktop on a flash disk? You know what we mean, you take a spreadsheet up to your 'rents, and you realize that they have no program to actually open your spreadsheet with. Or maybe you hop from computer to computer in several offices, and hate the fact that every computer you work on is just different enough to make it difficult to get things done.

Even if you don't use Linux as a main desktop, it can come in handy in these types of situations. Flash storage is cheap as dirt, and there are a number of small, yet full-bodied distributions that can run off flash drives. Most modern computers can boot from USB mass storage by changing the boot order in the computer's BIOS (if you've never done this, please consult your computer's documentation. It's not particularly difficult, but does vary a bit from computer to computer.)

We're looking at two such distributions over the next couple Switch installments. The two little distributions -- Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux Not -- have been chosen for their flexibility and very different approaches to the same issues. Many distributions can be pared down to fit on flash drives, but these two are optimized for it from the get-go.

Puppy Linux is first on our list for a few reasons. It's not because it's the easiest distro to get on to a flash drive. It's not necessarily the easiest to set up on a computer in general. However, it does have a very familiar feel, a good user interface, and it does deliver most of the features you'd want in a desktop on a stick.

Puppy Linux (like real puppies) comes in many shapes and sizes. Most of these derivative distributions are based off the standard 98 MB Puppy. They simply add (or remove) features that may not suit every user. For instance, ChubbyPuppy (now Puppy Office) has OpenOffice built in to the standard Puppy offerings. MeanPuppy is lightweight, uses XVesa in place of Xorg, and removes InkScape, Gnumeric and Gaim. It's worth looking around at Puppy derivatives, to make sure you get the one that fits best first time around.

Loading Puppy for the first time is an experience. To install to a flash disk, you must first burn an .iso (disk image) to a liveCD. Upon booting, you'll be greeted with a choice of language/keyboard set up, and then a choice of X (graphical) servers.

If you're running older hardware, or imagine that Puppy will be run on less than optimal hardware at some point or another, choose XVesa. Otherwise, Xorg should be fine. Test your configuration when Puppy prompts you to, and the Puppy desktop will load.

So Puppy's up and running. But you want it on your flash disk. There are a couple of options to get there.

You can choose to install the liveCD as is to your flash drive. Optionally, you can remaster the CD to fit your needs and then install it to your flash drive. Remastering is a little beyond the scope of what we're covering this week, but there are some good tutorials on how to remaster Puppy.

Puppy runs the desktop, after booting a liveCD, entirely off your RAM. What does that mean? A number of things, but the most important to the task at hand is that your liveCD is not mounted (accessible for reading). Puppy, when it creates a flash drive, copies core system files off of the liveCD. This means you must manually mount the CD that is likely still sitting in your disk drive.

Click on Drives icon on the desktop, and we get a funky little dialog box that allows us to mount the drives on our system. Here we see any optical drives, hard drives, and flash drives we may have plugged in. For now, we'll just mount the optical drive that has the Puppy disk.

Right click on the desktop (anywhere) and select from the menu the Puppy Installer. As you can see, we can install Puppy just about any where on our computer. Since we've already got an operating system in place on our hard drives, and just want something we can carry around on our keychain, we're opting to install to a USB flash device.

Puppy, not trusting us entirely, verifies that yes, in fact, this is the flash drive we had in mind. Kind of an annoying extra step? Yes. But ever since we wiped our hard drive by accidentally selecting the defaults on a similar type installer program, we don't mind so much.

Puppy, to even put us further at ease, tells us a little bit about the drive. The vfat formatting is fine, and the size the disk is returning seems correct. We're going to ignore the Superfloppy option. Everything else in our lives may be quirky, but our BIOS, thankfully, is not.

Sometimes Puppy barks repeatedly, saying the same thing over and over. This is one of those cases. So we'll go ahead and click through the OK options.

Leave the Master Boot Record alone. It's usually not an issue. In the event you should have a problem on the machines you use the most, you can tweak the settings a bit here.

Didn't know you were going to get a sanity check out of the deal, did you? It made our palms sweat a little when we got this message. Then we realized... the sanity of the install, not the installer. Well, that's a relief.

Pressing ENTER causes some scripts to run, and the pertinent information from the liveCD to be copied to your flash disk.

When you boot with the flash disk, you'll notice the horrendous default Welcome Puppy wallpaper is gone, and replaced with something a little more -- serene. You'll also notice that Puppy saves profiles to your flash disk. You can tweak these profiles for machines or work styles you use often.

We like Puppy for a few reasons. With the exception of our ethernet connection, all of our hardware was recognized. Even the ethernet connection was easily remedied with the Network Wizard and the activation of auto-DHCP. We also like that the remaster option is so clearly available. It's not something we chose to do at this point, especially whereas there are so many Puppy derivatives that could suit us right out of the box, but it is nice for those who like to kick the tires.

Not a Puppy lover but intrigued by a distro on a flash drive? Check in for the run down on Damn Small Linux Not next week.

Tags: Damn Small Linux, DamnSmallLinux, flash drive, FlashDrive, how to, HowTo, howtos, Linux, linux-switch, liveCD, opensource, Puppy Linux, PuppyLinux